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From the pen of the fifteen-year-old Beethoven, these three piano quartets are among the earliest examples of a chamber music genre that would not reach full maturity until the time of Brahms.
Even those well acquainted with Beethoven's work list might be excused for asking, "Whose piano quartets are these?" Mention of Beethoven and piano quartet in the same breath customarily evokes recognition of but a single work, the op. 16 Piano Quartet in E♭ Major, which is itself an arrangement by the composer of his Quintet in E♭ Major for piano and winds. Naxos was wise, however, not to claim a premiere recording coup, for at least one other recording I know of with the Scheuerer Quartet on the Koch Discover International label has been gathering dust in the cutout bins for ages. Others may also have existed at one time or another and possibly still do. These are, in fact, authentic Beethoven, written, according to note author Keith Anderson, when the composer was 15. They were published by Artaria posthumously, and are listed in the "without opus" catalog as three entries under number 36. Evidence of their authorship is established by the fact that Beethoven subsequently borrowed from them in his op. 2 piano sonatas.
Was Beethoven acquainted with Mozart's two masterful piano quartets? And if so, did he model these three teenaged works after them? It's possible, I suppose. At least Anderson seems to think so, claiming that "the spirit of Mozart hovers near." But I'm a bit dubious. Mozart completed his two piano quartets in 1785 and 1786, respectively. The ink would have been barely dry when Beethoven turned 15 and was still living under his parents' roof in Bonn. Would Mozart's works have traveled that quickly from Vienna to Bonn? It's more likely, I think, that Beethoven would have had an opportunity to hear Mozart's piano quartets when he traveled to Vienna for the first time a year or so later, in 1787, in the hope of studying with Mozart; but if these three early works by Beethoven do date from 1785, as stated, then they must already have been written before his trip to Vienna. I'm not suggesting that Beethoven never heard or played a note of Mozart's music before he was 15; I just think it unlikely that Mozart's late piano quartets were the young composer's model. Haydn, to the best of my knowledge, wrote no piano quartets, but he did write lots and lots of piano trios; and my guess would be that they, more than anything by Mozart, were the young Beethoven's models. Let us remember that in addition to violin and piano lessons, Beethoven received instruction from a very young age on viola. It would have made perfect sense to him to augment the Haydn piano trio model with a part for viola he could play himself.
I will not disagree wholly with Anderson. Mozart was an important influence in Beethoven's life, and there are many moments in these piano quartets that do seem to exude a Mozartean spirit. The Rondo of the C-Major Quartet, for instance, is strongly suggestive of many a Mozart rollicking finale. The theme and variations movement of the E♭-Major Quartet, however, is made of sturdier, more straightforward Haydnesque stuff, albeit without Haydn's humorous touch. But what is truly amazing to me about these works, even a bit scary, is how much they already sound like the Beethoven we all know. How daring, for example, to begin the E♭-Major Quartet with a highly expressive Adagio assai movement. Or listen to the bold triadic outline in octaves, a commanding call to attention that announces the beginning of the D-Major Quartet; or the way the voices engage in an overlapping dialogue of throbbing poignancy in the Andante con moto of the same Quartet; or to the incipient flashes of Sturm und Drang that arise briefly and quickly subside at every turn throughout all of these works. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven was not a Wunderkind; he developed more slowly and later. Yet here, at 15, his imprint is already unmistakable.
The New Zealand Piano Quartet is not to be confused with the New Zealand String Quartet; they are two entirely separate ensembles with no member crossovers. I wish to emphasize this point, so as not to taint one ensemble with criticism of the other. According to Naxos, this is the New Zealand Piano Quartet's first recording for the label. I wish them better luck next time. No one player is completely guiltless (except for pianist Richard Mapp who has no control over the tuning of his instrument once recording has commenced), but I single out violist Donald Maurice whose intonation in the variations movement of the E♭-Major Quartet is--well, let's just say--north of the equator. Just listen to the variation that begins at 3:32. Violinist Yury Gezentsvey doesn't fare much better in his extended solo passage beginning at 2:44 in the second movement of the C-Major Quartet. It's too bad that going sharp and going flat don't cancel each other out, for Gezentsvey is above pitch as often as he is below it. C'mon guys, this is not difficult music. I shudder to think what Brahms's piano quartets would sound like in these hands.
It's regrettable that these performances could not have been better, for these youthful works by the budding Beethoven are surely worth knowing, and it's unlikely there will be another recording of them anytime soon. If you are not as sensitive to imprecise intonation as I am--it's a curse, I tell you--perhaps you can enjoy this disc without wearing a mouth guard to prevent you from clenching your teeth. Trust me, the music is worth it. -- Fanfare, Jerry Dubins, Nov/Dec 2009